Peace Corps Writers
Writers from the Peace Corps (page 4)
Writers from the Peace Corps
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Bibliography of
Peace Corps Writers

Writing from experience
Anyone who has read Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, e. e. cummings, Malcolm Cowley, or John Dos Passos can see how they used the experience of living in France, England, and Spain as subject matter.
     In much the same way, Paul Theroux, Moritz Thomsen, Maria Thomas, Eileen Drew, Richard Wiley, P.F. Kluge, Bob Shacochis, Norm Rush, Marnie Mueller, Peter Hessler, George Packer, Kathleen Coskran, Mark Brazaitis, Mary-Ann Tirone Smith, Eileen Drew, Chris Conlon, Sandra Meek, Tom Hazuka, Jeanne D’Haem, Joseph Monninger, Leonard Levitt, Margaret Szumowski, Ann Neelon, Roland Merullo, Charles Larson, Susan Rich, Mike Tidwell, Susanna Herrera, Peter Chilson, Geraldine Kennedy, Rob Davidson, and hundreds of other Peace Corps writers have used Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia, and Eastern Europe in their short stories, novels, poetry, and non-fiction.
     While writing about the developing world and emerging democracies, they have broadened the landscape of American readers by introducing new countries and new ideas about other cultures and societies, much the same way that the writers and artists in Paris in the 1920s broadened the view of the world for Americans back home.
 
  Our writer in Paris
Closer to the Peace Corps, and closer to our decade, there is Black Girl in Paris by Shay Youngblood, who lived in Paris before becoming a Volunteer in Dominica. Of Paris, Shay writes, “it seemed to be the kind of place that, if you were a writer or artist, there was something in the air that could transform you.”
     Shay Youngblood, however, was not following Ernest Hemingway. She was following another literary lion, James Baldwin, who left Greenwich Village in 1948 because of American racism. Baldwin would spend more than a decade in Paris where he wrote his first novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain.
     
In Black Girl in Paris, Youngblood informs us that upon arriving in the Paris of 1924 in his early twenties, Langston Hughes had only $7 in his pocket; that an equally youthful James Baldwin followed two decades later with $40. Youngblood’s protagonist came with $140 hidden between her sock and the sole of her shoe. “They dared to make a way when there was none and I want to be just like them,” she writes. “This is the place where it happened. Where it will happen again.”
     With these writers as her touchstone, Shay doesn’t look back in anger, but expands on the expatriate theme to write about a young black woman who has fled the deep South in search of a childhood dream of a color-blind, liberal atmosphere in which a woman can become a writer. And in doing so, she pays her homage, not to Hemingway or Fitzgerald, but to her black expatriates: Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin.

Poetry in the Peace Corps
The intense cross cultural experience of the Peace Corps has produced in many PCVs a deep well of sentiment that has found its way, perhaps too easily, into poetry. Fortunately, this intense experience has also been a rich source of material for many fine published poets including Charlie Smith, Mark Brazaitis, Philip Dacey, Sandra Meek, Tom Hebert, Ann Neelon, Paul Violi, Keith Carthwright, Susan Rich, Lisa Chavez, John Flynn, Margaret Szumowski, Virginia Gilbert, Tony Zurlo, and many others.
     Poets, I believe, have been best able to explain the values of the Peace Corps experience as it relates to writing. Margaret Szumowski, who served in Uganda and Ethiopia, puts it this way:

    I think the poet gains a great deal. She absorbs the sounds of other languages, takes in imagery never seen before, observes the way families operate compared to her own experience, sees the struggle other peoples have to survive at all.
         The visual shock and splendor of Africa is enough to keep the poet writing for the rest of her life — take as an example, the baobab. I’d never seen such a strange and magnificent tree, one that blooms at night, harbors night creatures such as lemurs, and provides food for humans from its fuzzy pods. I’d never seen donkeys in the streets of Addis Ababa, laden with their loads, or a woman dancing around our house, rags tied to her feet as she cleaned the floor. I’d never seen soldiers with their guns pointed at us, as I did in Uganda. All of these experiences gave me enough to think about and absorb for the rest of my life.

     The ability to “see” that poets have is combined with what all of us gained from the experience, as Chris Conlon puts it, “perspective, maturity, a larger and, one hopes, better ‘self.’”
     But it is the “gift” of language that these poets find more useful and which benefits them the most. Poet Ann Neelon sums up her experience in Senegal, with one word, “foreignness.”

    Foreignness is important to a poet because it teaches humility. Humility is important because without it there is no mystical experience.
         In Senegal, I gained many things useful to a poet. These included hours of direct exposure to the oral tradition via West African griots, caches of exquisite bush and desert images, and French and Wolof syllables, but none of these can compare with the opportunity to have Africa erase who I was. Only after losing myself could I find myself as a writer.

And in the Peace Corps the overwhelming opportunity to “lose oneself” makes writers of us all.

     
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